Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Does Coming out Matter?: A New Harris Poll Suggests That Knowing People Who Are Gay Makes Little Difference in Whether One Supports Gay Rights

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Does Coming out Matter?: A New Harris Poll Suggests That Knowing People Who Are Gay Makes Little Difference in Whether One Supports Gay Rights

Article excerpt

A NEW HARRIS POLL SUGGESTS THAT KNOWING PEOPLE WHO ARE GAY MAKES LITTLE DIFFERENCE IN WHETHER ONE SUPPORTS GAY RIGHTS

One of the basic tenets of faith for gay activists has been that coming out; helps convince people of the need for gay rights. If only they know who we are, the argument goes, they can't help but support us. But a recent survey conducted by a respected polling firm suggests that that belief may be misplaced. According to the poll, people with gay friends or relatives are no more likely to support gay rights laws as people who have no gay acquaintances at all.

Louis Harris and Associates Inc. questioned 623 adults between July 17 and July 19. A modest majority (52%-41%) said they favor "laws that make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians." Among those surveyed, 37% reported having "close friends or relatives" who are lesbian or gay.

But; the real shock in the polling results lay in the details. "Surprisingly, perhaps those who have gay or lesbian close friends or relatives are no more supportive of antidiscrimination laws than those who do not (53%-42% compared to 51%-40%)," wrote Humphrey Taylor, chairman and CEO of Louis Harris and Associates, in material accompanying the poll results. The margin of error was +4%.

Does this shoot down the theory that coming out is the best weapon against; antigay bigotry? Not really, say political and gay fights experts. They argue that the Harris Poll, published August 19, is just one of many surveys. And most of those polls show that to know gay people is, if not to love them, to at least be more likely to support their basic rights.

A pamphlet published by the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force calls coming out the most effective way for gay people to challenge and change homophobic attitudes. When nongays discover that someone they love or respect is gay, often they reexamine the beliefs they once held about the lives and rights of gay people, the brochure asserts.

So what happened at Harris?

"This poll is clearly an anomaly," says Wayne Besen, associate communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group in Washington, D.C. "It goes against most polls out there. I think we all know from personal experience that coming out definitely changes people's attitudes and negative perceptions about gay people. It's as obvious as knowing that eating brownies on Sunday will probably make you gain weight."

Besen says if more polls were to replicate the finding that friends and relatives of gays are no more likely than others to support gay rights laws, "then we would have to take a hard look at it. For now, there's not much concern."

The poll results contradict nearly all surveys on the subject for nearly 20 years. One problem with the survey is the number of respondents who report having gay friends or relatives: 230. "It's fairly small. I'd worry about instability," says Bill Schneider, a senior political analyst for CNN and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I wouldn't want to reach any firm conclusions from this."

Schneider, an expert on polls, says the results "aren't consistent with other polls. …

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